The Science of Happiness Post 6: From Gratitude to Happiness

Robert Emmons, the world’s leading expert on gratitude and professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, says that “Gratitude has been conceptualized as an emotion, a virtue, a moral sentiment, a motive, a coping response, a skill, and an attitude. It is all of these and more.” He defines gratitude in his article Why Gratitude Is Good: “First, it’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received. This doesn’t mean that life is perfect; it doesn’t ignore complaints, burdens, and hassles. But when we look at life as a whole, gratitude encourages us to identify some amount of goodness in our life.…” Summer Allen, Ph.D. and Greater Good Science Center research and writing fellow, summarizes the research on gratitude in his 2018 paper, The Science of Gratitude, citing leaders describing gratitude as “a social glue that fortifies relationships—between friends, family, and romantic partners—and serves as the backbone of human society.”

Gratitude is a generator of positive emotions and as such it is responsible for elevated levels of happiness and optimism. Emiliana Simon-Thomas cites the work of Philip Watkins, who describes the psychological effects of gratitude in in his book of 2014, Gratitude and the Good Life. He explains that gratitude gives us a happiness boost in two ways. First, gratitude enhances the frequency and magnitude of enjoyment that people have around present pleasant positive emotional experiences. This is what he calls “a positivity bias,” in which grateful people have an inclination to orient their attention towards the positive in their environment, as opposed to focusing on threats or worries. The second way is that gratitude counteracts adaptation and habituation, which happens when we are repeatedly exposed to a certain source of pleasure and our joy wanes in time. Gratitude then makes it less likely that people take things or situations for granted, lowering the threshold for noticing and appreciating the simple everyday events as new.

Gratitude can be categorized as an affective trait (a grateful tendency or disposition), a mood (daily fluctuations in gratitude), and an emotion (a temporary feeling after receiving a gift or a favor). Robert Emmons explains in his book of 2008, Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier, all the benefits of gratitude for our physical and phycological health. Gratitude brings more optimism, life satisfaction, and happiness as well as less envy, possessiveness, anxiety, and depression. Gratitude is also linked to more cooperation, generosity, compassion, forgiveness, and to happier relationships. Gratitude strengthens the immune system, lowers blood pressure, reduces pain, and improves the quality of sleep. Gratitude makes leaders more pro-social and reduces post-traumatic stress in certain groups. In the following video, The Power of Gratitude, Emmons asserts that “Gratitude has a power to do three things: to heal, to energize, and to change lives.” Four main conclusions of his research on grateful people are that gratitude: 1) allows us to celebrate the present, 2) blocks negative emotions, 3) makes us stress resistant, and 4) enhances our self-worth.  

“I have a desire to do something in return. To do thanks. To give thanks. Give things. Give thoughts. Give love. So gratitude becomes the gift, creating a cycle of giving and receiving, the endless waterfall. Filling up and spilling over… perhaps not even to the giver but to someone else, to whoever crosses one’s path. It is the simple passing on of the gift,” reflects Elizabeth Bartlett after having received a heart transplant, as Robert Emmons cites in his article Pay It Forward. Here he explains that gratitude serves as a key link between receiving and giving, and that because so much of human life is about giving and receiving, gratitude becomes critical for strengthening our social ties and our sense of interconnectedness. When we experience gratitude, we understand that another person wishes us well and we feel loved and cared for, and we want to give to others what we have received. “It is gratitude that enables us to receive and it is gratitude that motivates us to return the goodness that we have been given. In short, it is gratitude that enables us to be fully human,” concludes Emmons.

Jeremy Adam Smith, editor of the Greater Good Magazine and The Gratitude Project, describes in his article Six Habits of Highly Grateful People the following traits grateful people have that make them continually increase their well-being:

  • They think about losing something they have and thus appreciate it more.
  • They delight in daily little rituals, like smelling coffee or savoring a nice meal.
  • They take good things as gifts, not as birthrights.
  • They are grateful to people, which enhances their sense of interconnectedness.
  • They are authentic and specific in their gratitude.
  • They are able to be grateful even for adversity, understanding that there is good also in a difficulty.

It is specially during hard times that gratitude can be most helpful, as Robert Emmons explains in How Gratitude Can Help You Through Hard Times. Although it is almost impossible to feel good in difficult times, the power of gratefulness resides on its capacity to shift our perspective toward what we have learned during a hard time and the positive new outcome of a given situation. By acknowledging that to be grateful is a personal choice and a way of being, a redemptive twist can occur that transforms suffering and affliction into a new life or new opportunities. “This is an advantage that grateful people have—and it is a skill that anyone can learn,” affirms Emmons.

We have just reviewed how gratitude promotes physical and psychological well-being and happiness and, more importantly, that being grateful is a skill we can learn. I propose one first aim to meet this purpose: to be grateful for ourselves, for who we are, and what we have become. Let’s find out in the next post what does the concept of self-compassion mean and why does it drive resilience.

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